Lancashire council today recommended that energy company Cuadrilla’s application to explore for shale gas on two sites in the county should be refused. The council is concerned about the noise and traffic the developments could bring. The recommendation is a significant blow to the UK’s nascent shale gas industry.
Councillors are due to make a final decision at the end of next week. Carbon Brief takes a look at what the decision could mean for shale gas’s prospects in the UK.
Cuadrilla was hoping to get permission to frack two sites in Lancashire, Preston New Road and Roseacre Wood. A report from Lancashire’s planning department today said the council should refuse such permission as the operation would cause “unacceptable” levels of noise and traffic, the Telegraph reports.
The council’s report states that the Preston New Road application should be refused as:
“… it has not been satisfactorily demonstrated that noise impacts would be reduced to acceptable levels and would therefore unnecessarily and unacceptably result in harm to the amenity of neighbouring properties by way of noise pollution.”
The report says the council has the same objection for the Roseacre Wood site, with the additional concern that the development would:
“… generate an increase in traffic, particularly HGV movements, that would result in an unacceptable impact on the rural highway network and on existing road users, particularly vulnerable road users and a reduction in overall highway safety that would be severe.”
Last week, the Environment Agency gave the Preston New Road site an environmental permit.
The news will be a blow to Cuadrilla, but it previously indicated that a negative outcome would not see it end its shale gas operations. Councillors are due to make a final decision during meetings expected to run through next week.
The council is expecting a large number of responses to the report, so has allocated up to four days for their consideration. About 100 members of the public have each been given a four-minute speaking slot and major groups have been allocated 30-minute slots to make their case, the Lancashire Evening Post reports. Cuadrilla has the right to appeal the decision if its application is ultimately rejected.
The government put a moratorium on fracking after tremors were detected the last time the company tried fracking in May 2011. That ban was lifted in 2012. Cuadrilla’s chief executive Francis Egan told the Telegraph earlier this week that, if the company were given permission, fracking could resume by the end of the year.
Shale gas and the UK’s energy mix
If the council follows the report’s recommendation, Cuadrilla won’t be fracking for shale gas in Lancashire any time soon. That would be a big blow to other shale gas companies, which were watching to see how Cuadrilla proceeded before pushing on with their own projects.
But the decision is unlikely to make much difference to UK’s energy mix in the long run.
There is only a limited window of opportunity for shale gas if the UK is going to stick to its legally binding climate goals, the government’s official advisor the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) says.
The CCC says the UK power sector should be almost completely decarbonised by 2030 if the UK is going to hit its climate goals. So there’s not much time for shale gas to be developed to generate electricity unless expensive carbon capture and storage technology gets fitted to power plants.
There’s some debate over how large emissions from fracking can be. Government research shows shale gas can have less emissions than imported gas. But only if companies can prevent methane escaping during the fracking process. Something that companies in the US have continually struggled with.
It also depends on what the shale gas goes on to displace. If it takes the place of coal in the energy mix, the UK’s emissions could fall as coal has about twice the emissions of gas when it is burned to generate electricity. But if it replaces other gas, then the UK’s emissions would stay about the same.
The report states that the project “will generate some greenhouse gas emissions. But providing the operational practices are adhered to and regulated by the Environment Agency, the emissions would not cause unacceptable impacts.” The planning officials come to that conclusion despite the fact that Cuadrilla plans to ‘flare’ or burn off escaped gas during the project’s exploration phase.
There are other reasons shale gas may only make a minor contribution to the UK’s energy mix. The UK’s complex geology makes it hard to get at, and no one really knows how much companies might eventually be able to extract.
The public is also very divided over fracking. There were large public protests in Balcombe in 2012 over the prospect of shale gas companies moving in. Public opposition to the noise and traffic associated with the fracking process may also have played a part in today’s recommendation from Lancashire council’s officers.
The amount of time it takes for companies to get permission to frack may also put off many companies. Egan says the ideal amount of time to attain a permit would be about 16 weeks. Philip Mace, partner at law firm Clyde & Co, says in a statement that other companies are now “unlikely to have the appetite or backing to face the long and expensive approval process that is being required to carry out fracking in the UK.”
Cuadrilla has maintained it is happy to accept the burden of intense scrutiny as it is the first company to try and commercially frack in the UK. Today’s decision will further test that resolve. The company says in a statement that it still believes that “the limited grounds on which the officers have recommended refusal can be satisfactorily resolved.”
Industry group the UK Office of Unconventional Oil and Gas likewise remains hopeful that today’s recomendation is an isolated incident. It says in a statement that the Lancashire council report’s views appear to be based on “local planning matters specific to these sites rather than any issues that would have an obvious impact on other shale gas applications.”
The report is unlikely to have a major impact on the UK’s energy mix in the long-term. But it is a symbolic setback for an industry still struggling to get up and running despite support from the prime minister and chancellor.